A Pope in peril: Can Francis lead his Church through crisis?

Pope Francis prays with priests at the end of a limited public audience at the San Damaso courtyard in The Vatican

Pope Francis prays with priests at the end of a limited public audience at the San Damaso courtyard in The Vatican - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

His Church is assailed on all sides, its role in the modern world in question like never before. Is Pope Francis the man to meet the challenge?

The central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica was empty, there were no crowds in the square below. Instead, beneath the vast cavernousness of the basilica itself, a lone figure stood, the white of his papal vestments standing out starkly against the rich reds and golds of the interior.

The traditional theatre of the Urbi et Orbi Easter message had been turned on its head as Pope Francis addressed the world in the first frightening weeks of the coronavirus crisis in Europe. In Italy the death toll would top 20,000 the following day, and he had a powerful message, saying "indifference, self-centeredness, division and forgetfulness... seem to prevail when fear and death overwhelm us".

The resurrection of Christ is "a different 'contagion'", he said. "It is the contagion of hope." Hope was exactly what many were looking to him for at that moment. His special benediction two weeks before, taking place in an ominously dark, rain-lashed St Peter's Square, had taken the theme of Jesus’ calming of the storm. As the crisis grew, he appeared like a sturdy mast in a terrifying tempest.

That storm has hardly abated in the intervening 12 months. As the globe remains in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, the institution this Pope of the pandemic leads is also in turmoil, in fact, the Catholic Church struggling under the conflicting pressures of adapting to a changing world, ultimately seeing Francis' role and authority questioned by his own priests.


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Jorge Bergoglio, who on Easter Sunday will once again address a worried world, made an instant impression as a warm, reassuring personality on his 2013 election. He was charmingly humble, refusing to sit on a throne or wear the rich papal garb. He greeted the waiting crowd in St Peter’s Square with a casual, softly spoken "Buona sera". He shunned the private car to instead take a minibus to his hotel with other cardinals. A superstar was born.

Having been handed the top job in the perilously unprecedented circumstances of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, having resigned rather than died, the papacy was potentially a poisoned chalice, but Bergoglio’s optics – seductive in their simplicity – had ignited imaginations. The first pontiff from the Americas with a Latin laid-backness, the Argentine was an avuncular, down to earth figure with an easy smile and a common touch which contrasted sharply with his predecessor’s Teutonic coldness and inscrutability.

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And the image seemed to have substance behind it. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires Bergoglio had taken the subway instead of a chauffeur-driven limo every day for 15 years and he was dubbed the ‘Bishop of the slums’ for his work with the destitute. During the traditional Maundy Thursday ritual he had chosen to wash and kiss the feet of prisoners and HIV positive patients. Many hoped Francis, with his boldness and moral clarity, would bring change to the Church after years of crisis, from the child abuse scandal to an in-fighting Vatican machine that had near collapsed under Ratzinger.

But Francis was in fact once perceived very differently, and neither had he always acted out of clear moral conviction. A man who rose up the ranks rapidly in the Jesuit order in Argentina, holding its top job during the violent years of the country’s Dirty War, and who successfully negotiated the political intrigues of the Church to become Pope was unlikely to be a simple one and Francis is a man of contradictions – a "Pope of paradox", as biographer Paul Vallely has put it.



Neither has Francis been able to live up to the high hopes placed upon him in those heady early days that he would cure all the Church’s ills, instead muddying the waters on the direction it is taking in a way which has sowed discord while achieving little. Eight years on, the Church is still ripping itself apart.

A civil war was already going on in the Church when Bergoglio became the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina almost 50 years ago. In the wake of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and with the rise of Liberation Theology – the new philosophy of empowerment of the poor then growing in the Latin American Church – liberals and conservatives were at each other’s throats.

Charged with restoring order within the Jesuits, Bergoglio got a reputation as an austere enforcer. He moved mercilessly against Liberation Theology and signs of reform and liberalism, instead embracing the old ways by wearing vestments in velvet and gold. "Ordinary people like a touch of Evita," he was reported to have said.

But the picture of Bergoglio’s character gets seriously complicated with Argentina’s Dirty War of 1976-83. By the time of Juan Perón’s mid-1970s second presidency, and that of his third wife Isabel that followed, the spectrum of Peronism stretched from the left-wing guerrillas, the Montoneros, to the far-right paramilitaries, the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (AAA). Bergoglio’s own allegiance was to the Guardia de Hierro (Iron Guard) who came somewhere in the middle, and this was the background against which the military coup came in March 1976.

The Catholic Church’s place in this was confused. While some Liberation Theology-aligned radical priests supported the Montoneros, others in the highest echelons of the Church saw themselves as united in the same anti-Communist crusade as the junta. In the figure of Christian von Wernich, chaplain of the Buenos Aires Police, now in prison for complicity with kidnap, torture and murder, the Church got blood on its hands.

Bergoglio’s own actions during those seven years have been the subject of intense scrutiny due to the case of two Jesuit priests, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio. The pair had been living and working in the Buenos Aires slums for three years when Bergoglio ordered them to leave as part of his anti-Liberation Theology crusade. The two men refused and Bergoglio dismissed them from the order, whether directly or indirectly has been hotly disputed.

Obedience is a key Jesuit principle and Bergoglio’s high handedness with the slum priests was not surprising, but in the political context of the time, it was reckless. Slum priests, categorised alongside trade unionists, students, and artists as ‘terrorists’, had already been murdered – the charismatic, leather jacket-wearing Carlos Mugica having been shot dead by the AAA after a Saturday morning Mass two years before. Without the protection of their order, Jalics and Yorio were vulnerable.

They were truly exposed when, five days after their confrontation with Bergoglio, the long-expected military coup came and the disappearances began. Over the next seven years 30,000 people would be torn from their beds or pulled off the streets and disappear into the maw of the military’s murder machine. Within weeks Jalics and Yorio were arrested, tortured and imprisoned in the worst of conditions for five months. In the name of discipline, it seemed, Bergoglio had thrown his own men to the wolves.

Bergoglio later told his authorised biographer that he personally intervened with the heads of the junta to free the two priests, and while Jalics once claimed Bergoglio had filed a ‘false report’ to get them arrested, he later retracted that accusation. Prisoner of the junta and Nobel peace prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has said Bergoglio was certainly not a collaborator and slum priest Miguel La Civita has told of how he acted to protect him and others behind the scenes.

But Bergoglio’s actions over 30 years later, when amnesty laws were repealed and crimes against humanity hearings began in Argentina, continue to cast doubt on aspects of his character.

One of the most appalling of the junta’s crimes was their theft of small children and new-born babies from disappeared mothers, giving them to the Church for adoption, often into military families. These women, who were often tortured and gave birth in shackles, were subsequently killed. Many were thrown from planes over the Río de la Plata while drugged – the junta’s favourite method of murder. Some 500 children were stolen, and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – mothers of the disappeared – have fought tirelessly to trace their grandchildren.

Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, in June 2020

Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, in June 2020 - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Having repeatedly declined to meet the Madres as Archbishop of Buenos Aries, Bergoglio gave a short-tempered witness testimony in the Dirty War trials of 2010 and claimed, with offensive vagueness, that he had only known of the stolen babies for about 10 years – perhaps 25, he said when pushed, but certainly after the return of democracy. The case of Elena De La Cuadra, who was five months pregnant when she disappeared in 1977, and a letter of introduction Bergoglio gave Elena’s father at the time, appeared to prove otherwise.

It is true that the trials, under the left-wing Kirchner governments of 2003-15, were politically charged, and the national atmosphere was fraught as old wounds were reopened. Many just wanted to forget. But while the Madres – who could not forget – did finally meet with Bergoglio as Pope, his witness testimony seemed a telling moment. Here was a chance to fully honour the murdered mothers who had their babies torn from their arms, the children deprived of their parents and their identity, the grandparents living for decades with the pain of not knowing. He did not take it. Earlier, he had claimed immunity in order to give testimony in private rather than open court. As Elena De La Cuadra’s sister put it, "What kind of humility is that?"

Yet ‘humility’ has continued to be presented as the watchword of Francis’ papacy. While Vallely has argued Francis’ humility is "an intellectual stance" that emerged through post-Dirty War soul-searching, producing the washer of feet and taker of busses we know today, some might say such actions come off as merely performative.

‘Liberal’ is the other adjective that has been repeatedly applied to Francis, and some of his actions have given the progressively-minded genuine reason to be glad. In official papal documents he has called for social justice and action on climate change. He has presented a friendly face to other faiths, as in his recent meeting with Shia leader Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. He has called migrants and refugees "the face of Christ". Last year, he gave support to legal civil unions for same sex couples and an off the cuff comment in 2013 caused a sensation: "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?"

But, as Colm Tóibín recently pointed out in the London Review of Books, the much-celebrated "who am I to judge?" comment was made in direct response to questioning about a Vatican priest reported to have got trapped in a lift in Church offices with a male prostitute. Rather than a gesture of reconciliation, Francis’s comment was in defence of one of his own – a closing of ranks typical of the Church. He prefaced it by making negative noises about "the gay lobby".

Francis’ support for civil unions, meanwhile, came in the context of the legalisation of same sex marriage in Argentina, which he called "a manoeuvre by the devil". Just this month, he signed off a decree clarifying that the Church would not bless same sex unions, saying it "cannot bless sin".

None of this is remotely surprising given Catholic doctrine, but it is clear that Francis has principally pronounced platitudes while leaving official Church teachings largely untouched. There is no movement on genuine gay equality, nor on female ordination, or contraception and abortion – we wait in vain for this ‘Bishop of the slums’ to grasp that denying women reproductive rights is the most fundamental multiplier of misery among the world’s poorest.

But even so, Francis’ mood music has caused serious dissent among conservatives, rocking the Church. His extension of confession and communion to divorced and remarried Catholics in his Amoris laetitia document of 2016 caused something near panic, and his clashes with the arch-conservative Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah exemplified the unprecedented extent of opposition to him.

Sarah openly defied Francis on implementing Vatican II-style reforms to church services, as well as including women in the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual. Then, he pulled the rug out from under him by publishing a book defending clerical celibacy before Francis had responded to the 2019 Amazon synod’s favourable position on ordaining married men. That book was co-authored with Ratzinger, underlining how conservatives have looked to the ‘Pope Emeritus’ as an alternative source of power, threatening nothing less than another papal schism.

The issue of clerical celibacy is a telling one. Francis completely sidestepped the issue in his eventual response to the Amazon synod, and there have been other similar signs of weakness. He has failed to get to grips with the child abuse crisis, the wheels coming off the special commission he set up as abuse survivors resigned from it. The damning assessment of the performance of the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse last year – it found the issue was "was swept under the carpet" under his leadership – reflected badly on Francis. Seeing him as an ally, Francis himself had been responsible for elevating Nichols to the College of Cardinals and had given him a role in the powerful Congregation for Bishops.

Many feel nothing less than a public rending of garments by the Pope will satisfy the anger of the world at large at the scale of abuse within the Church, yet this most apparently outward-facing and media savvy of Popes has failed to do it.

Francis has shown more grit in his internal reforms, forming a Council of Cardinals known as the C9 to reform a Curia (Church bureaucracy) that was shown by the 2012 'Vatileaks' revelations to have been a nest of vipers, the authority of the Pope being undermined and vested interests being served instead.

The Vatileaks documents also hit the Vatican Bank with scandal, revealing huge corruption. Francis immediately set up a commission, which included lay members and reported directly to him, to deal with it. A streak of the enforcer who ruled the Jesuits with a rod of iron seems to remain, but in 2019 the revelation that Church charitable funds had been invested in a luxury apartment project in Chelsea made clear that warring allegiances between different Vatican entities and side-stepping of the Pope’s authority were far from a thing of the past. The child abuse commission was also said to have been undermined from within by hostile forces in the Vatican beyond Francis’ control.

As such internal machinations suggest, the role of pontiff is an overwhelmingly political one, and Peronism being Francis’ political lodestar explains much. As Tóibín pointed out, "the whole point of Peronism is that it can’t be pinned down... Being a Peronist means nothing and everything... You can be both reformer and conservative". This is the essence of Francis, and it must inevitably undermine his clarity of purpose. Peronism also explains his PR-friendly public acts of humility – they are Peronist arch-populism; Evita dispensing largesse to the Argentine workers, her beloved descamisados (‘shirtless ones’), all over again.

But however laudable some of his public statements and however effective a politician in some respects, Francis is still struggling to tame his Church and faces an uphill climb as he tries to meet a changing world on its own terms – something the Church must do if it is to deal with dwindling congregations and a growing recruitment crisis in its seminaries. Francis’ past also continues to haunt his papacy. As the Pope tries to calm the waters of the second pandemic year in his message to the world on Easter Sunday, he – and the Church he is straining to hold together – will be weathering their own storm.

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